Hattiesburg mayor orders restaurant dining rooms, entertainment venues to close; public gatherings limited to no more than 10 people

By JOSHUA WILSON,

Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker issued an executive order Saturday that shuts down restaurant dining rooms, closes entertainment venues and restricts public gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The executive order, 2020-2, goes into effect at midnight. It has the following provisions:

• All restaurants within the city with or without drive-in or drive-thru services may only provide takeout, delivery, pickup or drive-thru services as allowed by law.

• There will be no in-house dining or available seating areas for the public.

• Bars, taverns, lounges and nightclubs should close, except to the extent to which these establishments may provide takeout, delivery, pickup or drive-thru services as allowed by law.

• Public and common areas in malls, including food courts, will close.

• Entertainment venues, such as skating rinks and bowling alleys, will close.

• Movie theaters will remain closed until the end of April.

• All dance hall permits will remain suspended.

• There will be no more gatherings of more than 10 people at any event, including, but not limited to, church services, weddings and concerts.

• Funerals are limited to 10 or fewer people, and graveside services are encouraged. Indoor services and viewings are permitted as long as there are 10 or fewer people inside at one time.

• Funeral home directors are encouraged to livestream services for those who cannot attend funerals or visitations.

• All gyms and fitness centers will close.

In making the decision, Barker said he was “significantly concerned” with a number of factors, including the number of pending tests.

“We are getting lots of people with symptoms to be tested, and that’s a good thing, particularly with the Cough and Fever Clinic opened up by Forrest Health and Hattiesburg Clinic,” he said. “However, while our ability to get people in and tested has greatly ramped up, the logjam happens when those tests go to Jackson to be processed. It’s a lot for that one lab to handle.”

There are “well over” 120 pending tests between Hattiesburg Clinic, Forrest Health and Merit Health Wesley, according to the mayor.

“Ten percent of those tests come back positive, but that’s only about a week and a half’s worth of data,” he said.

He is also concerned with the number of university students who are beginning to come back from spring break – “some of them from places where infection rates are soaring,” he noted.

“We know we are about to see young people who are carrying this COVID disease back into our community,” said Barker.

The mayor said he assessed these factors – along with the Friday night recommendation from the Mississippi State Department of Health that restaurants should close their dining rooms – prior to making his decision.

“We take these sorts of decisions very seriously. Since this started, we knew sacrifices would have to be made … and we knew there would be real economic damage done. And, when I say that, I don’t mean economic damage to business owners or to the city’s tax coffers. I mean this virus comes with real human consequences,” he said.

Barker said “thousands” of people in service industry jobs will have no income.

“Those are the potential costs we must at least acknowledge when we make decisions like this … those are the individuals and families who are making huge sacrifices for the public health of our community,” he noted. “This decision isn’t made in a vacuum, and I hope those who favor this decision will show the same fervor and passion in supporting the many families who will very much need it because of this decision.”

He said there is "real potential" for the pandemic to carry on for "two or three months or more."

"Based on trends in other states, we believe our community's top surge in hospitalization may not even happen until May or early June," he said. "This alone should be a sobering thought for anyone. We are about to be stretched like never before."

The mayor said David Hogan, president of the Forrest County Board of Supervisors, will sign a similar order later Saturday.